Remembering Gig Young (1913 – 1978)

Posted in Remember by - January 20, 2014
Remembering Gig Young (1913 – 1978)

Tormented, troubled and very talented, American actor Gig Young was a likable, easy-going second lead in some popular American movies of the day. But a severe alcohol problem caused him to lose many parts, and he would ultimately be involved in one of Hollywood’s most disturbing and mysterious deaths.

Born Byron Elsworth Barr on November 4th 1913, he changed his name to Gig Young after playing a character of that name in one of his early films, the Barbara Stanwyck drama ‘The Gay Sisters’ (1942). After co-starring with Bette Davis in 1943’s ‘Old Acquaintance’, Young was drafted into the Coast Guard. After the war, Gig found steady work as a supporting player in various high profile movies such as 1948’s ‘Wake of the Red Witch’ with John Wayne, and as Porthos in ‘The Three Musketeers’, that same year.

A meaty part as an alcoholic came in 1951 with the James Cagney starrer ‘Come Fill the Cup’, which earned Young a Supporting Actor nod. A couple of rare lead roles followed, beginning with ‘Holiday for Sinners’ (1952), as a doctor facing a dilemma over the Mardi Gras weekend, and then the excellent 1953 crime drama ‘ City That Never Sleeps’, as a bored Chicago cop. The following year Gig gave notable support in the 1954 Doris Day musical ‘Young at Heart’, which began a trend for second lead character parts.

Another Oscar nomination came in 1958 playing a doctor in the entertaining Clark Gable /Doris Day comedy ‘Teacher’s Pet’. Young would support Doris Day yet again in the 1962 comedy ‘That Touch of Mink’, before playing Elvis Presley’s devious boxing manager Willy Grogan in ‘Kid Galahad’, (also ‘62). Gig supported Rock Hudson in the limp 1965 comedy ‘Strange Bedfellows’, and was later terrorized by Oliver Reed in the meandering thriller ‘The Shuttered Room’ (1967),playing Carol Lynley’s husband.

In 1969 Gig starred in the movie that he would be best remembered for. Flexing his acting muscles in Sydney Pollack’s brilliant depression-era drama ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Young gave a stunning performance as Rocky, the sweaty un-shaven emcee of a sordid end-of-pier dance marathon. His performance quite rightly won him the Oscar for Supporting Actor, although to me he was in the movie enough to be considered for Best Actor. I also think this performance is one of the greatest from the Sixties, and a role very close to Gig’s own tormented persona.

As with various past winners, the Academy Award did little to boost Gig’s ailing career. One of his last movies of note was the under-rated 1970 comedy-drama ‘Lovers and Other Strangers’, where he was very good as the adulterous father of Bonnie Bedelia. In 1974 Gig was fired (and replaced by Gene Wilder) from Mel Brooks’ comedy smash ‘Blazing Saddles’, due to withdrawal symptoms from his alcoholism.

There followed appearances in two of Sam Peckinpah’s lesser movies; ‘Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia’ (1974) and ‘The Killer Elite’ (1975), but by now Young’s movie career was pretty much over. After a good stint in the 1976 TV series ‘Gibbsville’, Gig’s final movie was the ironically titled ‘Game of Death’ (1978), which was mostly made up of un-released Bruce Lee footage.

On October 19th 1978 Gig Young and his wife of just 3 weeks, 31 year old German actress Kim Schmidt, were found dead in their New York apartment. It was surmised that Gig had shot and killed his wife before turning the gun on himself in an apparent murder-suicide, although it has never been made clear what the motive was for this bizarre act. Gig was 65 years old. Married five times, most notably to future Bewitched actress Elizabeth Montgomery (from 1956-63), Gig Young had a genial manner which masked a deeply insecure and anguished personality. He may be remembered for his senseless, selfish final act, but in cinematic terms, he gave the late 60’s one of cinema’s most memorable performances.

Favourite Movie: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
Favourite Performance: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

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